How Not to Do Apologetics: Dark Example from the ‘Tentative Apologist’ Randal Rauser

A video from the self-styled “Tentative Apologist” Randal Rauser has roused me to wake up this website again. I think he thinks he’s defending progressive Christianity. I’m no progressive Christian myself, but if I were, I would ask him to quit. It isn’t just that I disagree with Rauser’s conclusions. This video is riddled throughout with objectively identifiable failures in logic, a complete disregard for evidence, and a reprehensible rush to condemn a follower of Christ based on (I’ll say it again) objectively identifiable misrepresentations.

Let’s note right at the outset: This video thumbnail represents Rauser’s view of Sean McDowell. It does not represent reality, as I will show below.

I will speak to Rauser as I list the problems in his message. I will keep it pointed at his use or misuse of evidence, logic, and assumptions, so that none of this needs to depend on liking or disliking Sean McDowell. Sean is a friend of mine. I doubt Randal Rauser would say the same, but he doesn’t need to, if he cares about those three factors: evidence, logic, and assumptions. That’s where I’ll be focusing here.

Mr. Rauser:

  1. You say early on that McDowell implies that fuzzy boundaries around progressive Christianity constitute a problem for it. I agree that would be a rather silly thing to say if he said it, but he didn’t. Not even close. He does say it makes it hard to construct an answer to the question that applies to all persons who might consider themselves or by labeled by others as progressive Christians.
  2. Your fisking of Sean’s “caveat” concerning counterexamples (at 3:15) is once again a critique of something he didn’t say. He doesn’t say it here in this video, and you give us no reason to believe he says it anywhere. How can you possibly consider this a problematic rhetorical maneuver on his part, when you give us no reason to believe he’s even making such a maneuver?
  3. You make a big deal out of the fact that Christians differ over the nature of atonement or salvation, and therefore there many answers that may be candidates for being correct or true. That much we all agree with. But you present it as if it were some kind of rebuttal to McDowell’s view of progressive Christianity, which it manifestly is not.
    In order to be a rebuttal, you would have to demonstrate either that (a) progressive Christian beliefs do not tend to fall outside of that range of potentially true beliefs, or (b) Sean McDowell’s acceptable range is much more narrow than it should be. You do not attempt (a) in any way. You do throw (b) at us — especially in your video’s opening cartoon — but you offer no evidence for its being true, beyond your own assumptions. It happens to be false, as I know from Sean’s wider body of work, but one need not agree with that or even know it in order to recognize the point I am making in this paragraph, which is that your argument fails for lack of evidence.
  4. You say at 8:10 that “Sean McDowell is assuming without argument.” Not only is that sadly ironic in view of your own assumptions already mentioned, it’s also specious, illegitimate, and wrong. Consider that you yourself described this video of his as a “short.” Shorts are summaries. Summaries do not usually present entire arguments. Their statements may therefore be founded or unfounded, depending on whether the foundation for them exists in other sources, especially the person’s larger body of work. Therefore the fact that a statement is presented without accompanying foundation in such a short summary as this one means nothing on its own. You need to examine McDowell’s other work to find out whether he can support his statements. You don’t bother doing that; instead, you draw an unfounded conclusion of your own.

    The same answer does not apply to your video, by the way. Your video here is not a summary, it is a fisking, and fiskings require argument. To be charitable, since it is a short fisking, I would count it acceptable if you indicated somehow that your conclusion was drawn from what you’ve studied in his larger body of work. You don’t even do that.

  5. Worse yet, you say (and I quote) he’s claiming that the “mere existence of difference” is sufficient to constitute a different religion. Your claim there is unevidenced, to begin with, since he says no such thing here. Once again you commit the easily identifiable error or speaking without evidence. It’s also false. Sean makes no such claim anywhere. I know him and his work well enough to know: He very clearly believes that it is not the mere existence of difference, but rather the nature and degree of difference, that determines whether another set of beliefs constitutes a different religion.

    Again, you say at 8:45 (while still on this same point) that he assumes this point without argument. No, you assume that he assumes it. And you assume it with neither evidence nor argument. You are clearly committing the fault of which you accuse him.

  6. You complain near the end that Sean McDowell identifies evangelicalism with historic Christianity. I wondered where you got that from, since he came nowhere near saying such a thing in that final clip, so I searched through it to see. The closest thing I found was back at around 1:20 in your video, where he says progressive Christianity is “a different faith system than conservative Christianity or evangelicalism, and I would argue the historic Christian church.” If that’s where you got that conclusion from, it’s specious and unfounded. Suppose I said, “American football is different from English football (what Americans call soccer), from rugby, and I would argue Canadian football as well.” Would that mean I was identifying Canadian football with rugby or soccer? Hardly. You present no evidence of him making the identification you claim he makes.

    Besides that, do you actually dispute what he said near the end, that “progressive Christianity and conservative Christianity are actually two different things.” At 10:45 you misquote him on that, but at least it’s something McDowell might say. Again, though, do you doubt that progressive Christianity differs from conservative evangelical Christianity?

  7. Your summation after the final McDowell clip is a straw man along the same grossly erroneous lines as your cartoonish opening video thumbnail. McDowell very decidedly does not say, as you represent him saying (I am quoting you here now), “If you differ with the conservative evangelical in any respect, you’ve rejected historic Christianity.” Especially since, by your own examples, you imply that he would grind that difference as fine as agreement with the Chicago Statement and rejecting evolutionary theory.
    If you found him telling the world that C.S. Lewis wasn’t a true Christian, then you might have evidence that he believed such a thing. You won’t find that or anything remotely like it. What you present here is a very serious misrepresentation, and I call upon you to withdraw it. There’s a lot here you would do well to retract for the sake of accuracy and fairness, but that error in particular is false, wrong, unfair to Sean McDowell, and damaging to Christian discourse.

In summary:

In this video you purport to speak with a fair degree of seriousness, even some authority, in critiquing the “cultic” “radical sectarianism” McDowell supposedly espouses. What you’ve accomplished instead, unfortunately, is a mass (and a mess) of poor logic founded upon completely unevidenced criticism and a series of outright misrepresentations.

You attribute some pretty ridiculous and reprehensible beliefs to Sean McDowell falsely. Your doing so is itself utterly reprehensible. It doesn’t matter how much you may dislike him. If you care about honesty, you need to withdraw these false statements. You can disagree with him all you like. Just disagree honestly, okay?

And if you’re going to present yourself as an apologist, do try to work on the quality of your argument, too, please. I try to train people in evidence and in logic. This doesn’t help anyone. Not one bit.

Thank you.

Tom Gilson

Vice President for Strategic Services, Ratio Christi Lead Blogger at Thinking Christian Editor, True Reason BreakPoint Columnist

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15 Responses

  1. Tom, I’m glad you wrote this article. Randal Rauser’s online behavior is atrocious. Sean is only one of many traditional Christians who Rauser attacks via a litany of ad hominems and demeaning personal rhetoric. It is a shame what Rauser has become, especially considering that at one time he wrote some decent theology. Now he is just a bitter bloviator. It is time that people stop paying him credence or inviting him on their shows. He even wrote a book recently where he pretends to be a fundamentalist Christian apologist called “Christian Bellows.” It’s truly poor form.

  2. Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    Well, the art of fallacy is rampant, as usual. I don’t say much about faith or religion. Hitchens said enough. The best any of us can do is steer clear, seems to me.

  3. Paul Spurlock says:

    Rauser has a legitimate complaint. He’s reacting like most of us if we were told that our form of Christianity was “Another Gospel” or religion—and as Rauser points out, without an actual case made against our beliefs that was more than allegations.

    BUT the most telling thing in all of this is that none the leading apologists like McDowell, Childers, Turek, Koukl, Gilson, et. al., will formally debate Rauser.

    And it’s not because Rauser is a nobody. He’s obviously sharp, has a Ph.D, has written over a dozen books, and has been in debates with other heavyweights on major venues like the “Unbelievable?” Show (and he’s always civil and gracious in those venues—go see for yourself).

    So again, why are all the heavyweight apologists refusing to step up and publicly debate him? If he’s wrong take him on and demonstrate that such is the case once and for all. Failing to do so is, again, most telling.

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    I would not interact with him again, precisely because of his refusal to interact with me on the issues I raised here.

    Like you, he insisted on talking about problems he perceives in McDowell and Childers. He refused even to look at the manifest falsehoods and logical errors that I identified in this blog post. Repeatedly he demanded that I talk about something else instead, to the point that it was clear he was trying to control me. I have not tried to control him.

    His refusal to pay a moment’s attention to these objectively identifiable errors is telling. One has to wonder: Does he lack the competence to discern a logical fallacy or a failure of evidence? That seems unlikely. Does he not care about his integrity? That seems unlikely, too. I don’t know how else to understand it, though. Is there a third option?

    What I do know is that it seems pointless to enter into debate with someone whose response to an identified error is to ignore it and change the subject. That’s not debate, it’s not even dialogue. It gives me no reason to expect that we could have anything better than a pseudo-dialogue.

    Finally, his extreme misrepresentation of Sean McDowell here is, besides all the above, rude. You make a special point if his being civil in some venues, almost as we should be surprised. I am aware of his being civil in some places. I do find it somewhat pleasantly surprising.

    You say something is telling. You are right. Do not conclude, however, that what it “tells” is that any of us are afraid to defend our positions against him. It has more to do with recognizing there’s no point in subjecting oneself to such rudeness and misrepresentation for the sake of pseudo-dialogue.

  5. Tom Gilson says:

    Paul D. VanPelt, there is nothing about faith or religion that is inherently more prone to fallacy than anything else, and in my experience, documented in True Reason, atheists tend to consider themselves the party of reason but actually don’t come off doing so well themselves.

  6. Tom:
    I appreciate you taking the time to write. Your critique seems fair, and reasonable. Without feedback, it can be hard to improve… and I hope that Rauser takes the opportunity to do so.

  7. foom1971 says:

    “Paul D. VanPelt, there is nothing about faith or religion that is inherently more prone to fallacy than anything else […]”

    I assume you agree that every “faith or religion” other than your own is untrue? In that case, it seems absurd to claim that faith and religious belief isn’t “more prone to fallacy than anything else”, when it has a 100% (when rounded to whole numbers) track record of arriving at false beliefs. Faith or religion are certainly more prone to arriving at false beliefs than the scientific method, to pick one example of something less prone to fallacy. Faith is inherently useless as a way of determining truth as there’s nothing that can’t be believed on faith (to quote Matt Dillahunty).

    Christianity is inherently irrational as the evidence for it consists of nothing but testimony, which wouldn’t be anywhere near strong enough to establish that a resurrection happened even if it was the highest quality testimony of currently living, reliable, named eyewitnesses.

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    Wow. So few words, so many misconceptions. So many strong claims, too, several of which you speak as if they were established truth.

    Since they are your claims, the burden is on you to support them. First, that Christian evidence is strictly based on testimony, second, that testimony is always unreliable as you seem to claim, third that what you say about falsehood of religion shouldn’t be applied to all worldviews including atheistic, scientistic materialism, fifth, that faith is meant to be a means of acquiring knowledge, sixth, that science has such a perfect track record, seventh, that atheists have a stronger record of rational argumentation than Christians, that is, that they have a stronger demonstrated ability to construct and/or evaluate arguments using sound, fallacy processes of rational inference.

    Feel free to take them one at a time. I’m prepared to meet you rather easily on every single one of them. But they’re your claims, not mine, so it’s your turn to try to establish them.

  9. foom1971 says:

    I find it very revealing that as an apologist, your first response isn’t to say “of course there’s evidence, here it is!”, instead, it’s to hide behind burden of proof shenanigans.

    “First, that Christian evidence is strictly based on testimony”

    The Bible is testimony where it isn’t outright myth (Genesis, Exodus). Without it, Christianity wouldn’t exist. There are arguments for God, but arguments aren’t evidence, they don’t argue for the God of the Bible per se, and they all fail. Modern-day miracles are only claimed as evidence for Christianity because of prior Christian belief based on the Bible.

    “second, that testimony is always unreliable as you seem to claim”

    I didn’t say testimony is always unreliable (although it is, as has been established quite clearly by studies showing that eyewitnesses disagree, for example), I said it isn’t reliable enough to establish that a man resurrected, an extreme 1 in 100 billion miraculous claim. Eight named eyewitnesses testified to have seen Joseph Smith’s golden plates, yet you’re not a Mormon. Why not?

    “third that what you say about falsehood of religion shouldn’t be applied to all worldviews including atheistic, scientistic materialism”

    I didn’t make this claim either. Scepticism should be applied to all claims. Instead of “atheistic, scientistic materialism”, why not just say naturalism? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any observation which isn’t consistent with naturalism.

    “fifth, that faith is meant to be a means of acquiring knowledge”

    I didn’t make this claim either (and what happened to four?). Jesus said “blessed are those who believe but have not seen” – that’s praising people for “acquiring knowledge” through faith.

    “sixth, that science has such a perfect track record”

    I didn’t say perfect. But science has done far better than religion in discovering how the world operates. And it has improved exponentially over time, which cannot be said of religion, especially Christianity, which has diverged over time with disagreement over every aspect of it.

    “seventh, that atheists have a stronger record of rational argumentation than Christians, that is, that they have a stronger demonstrated ability to construct and/or evaluate arguments using sound, fallacy processes of rational inference.”

    I didn’t make this claim either. I agree that Christian theologians have invented lots of arguments to prove the existence of God. It’s just that these arguments all fail for one reason or another. Meanwhile, science looked at the evidence instead.

  10. Tom Gilson says:

    Lots to deal with there, but let me at least relieve you of one concern. Of course there’s evidence! I’ve written more than one book on it. I’ve written millions of words on it, in books, blogs, and The Stream. So… there it is. And many of those arguments actually do argue for the God of the Bible. See my latest book, Too Good to Be False.

    The reason I don’t just answer, “Of course there’s evidence, here it is!” is because I have been answering that way for decades, and I don’t have decades available right now to answer your particular blog comment.

    Burden of proof isn’t shenanigans. It’s the only sensible way to deal with people popping into one’s life with unsupported claims. If I had to disprove everything anyone ever suggested here and in other places where I interact, I’d need to be living multiple centuries every year. It makes a whole lot more sense to limit my responses to claims that are made responsibly. And that’s how I see burden of proof.

    I find it interesting that you found it “interesting” that I would respond that way. You obviously intended that as a pejorative. It almost sounds like you thought that your posting some unsupported claims here created an obligation upon me to show what’s wrong with every one of them. What happens next if I accept that obligation is, people drop more unsupported claims in here. They write a couple sentences, each one of them requiring hundreds of words in response.

    I’ll deal with responsible objections and responsibly supported claims. I’ll also deal with them one at a time, because again, it’s easy for you to write a quick slam, like,

    The Bible is testimony where it isn’t outright myth (Genesis, Exodus). Without it, Christianity wouldn’t exist. There are arguments for God, but arguments aren’t evidence, they don’t argue for the God of the Bible per se, and they all fail. Modern-day miracles are only claimed as evidence for Christianity because of prior Christian belief based on the Bible.

    To answer that, — assuming you’d given reasons to believe any of these claims, which you haven’t — I’d need to deal with reasons to take Genesis and Exodus seriously; I’d have to explain how you’ve misunderstood the relation of evidence and argument; I’d have to show how some arguments actually do point to the God of the Bible, and that those that point more generally toward theism still have epistemological and probative effects on how we view other evidence; I’d have to deal with the facts of miracles today, of which apparently you are unaware; and I’d have to take time to unpack your logical fallacy of the last sentence in that paragraph.

    Which one do you want to start with? One at a time. You can pick a different one from a different paragraph if you like

    But remember, what you have (at least in this paragraph) is nothing more than bare claims, none of which is supported by any argument or evidence. Please do us both the favor of laying out your reasons for your position. I want to know what I’m answering before I answer it.

  11. Tom Gilson says:

    Oh, and by the way… you said several times, “I didn’t make this claim.” I can accept that I drew some inferences that weren’t accurate in your case. I bear responsibility there, and I accept it. But if you want to be understood accurately, I think you might see that as one more reason for you to state your position fully and clearly.

  12. foom1971 says:

    “You can pick a different one from a different paragraph if you like”

    I’d prefer to defend one of the two claims I made in the first place, not the list of claims I didn’t make which you asked me to defend (that was the burden of proof shenanigans to which I referred). I’ll restate my claim so it’s as clear and concise as I can manage, then I’ll expand on it a bit.

    Christianity is irrational because it makes an extremely unlikely supernatural claim (that Jesus resurrected) on extremely weak evidence (testimony, but see below).

    About 100 billion people have died and stayed dead, so Jesus’s resurrection would be a 1 in 100 billion event on purely numerical terms.
    Miraculous claims are inherently irrational as, by definition, “a miracle happened” must be the least likely explanation for a claim otherwise it wouldn’t be a miracle in the first place. But if there is a more likely explanation, then it is irrational to prefer a less likely explanation. The claim that Jesus resurrected could be explained by many far more likely explanations, such as that someone made up a story. That kind of thing happens all the time – see all other religions for examples.
    The gospels aren’t testimony (in the legal sense), they’re hearsay. We don’t know who wrote the gospels. We do know that they were written 40-90 years after Jesus lived, in a different language to that spoken by Jesus in a different country. They are full of inconsistencies, such as those regarding Jesus’s virgin birth and resurrection. For example, the earliest version of Mark lacks any resurrection appearances at all, or disciples seeing Jesus but not realising it was him until later.
    It’s possible to argue that the gospels aren’t evidence for the resurrection at all, as they are also the books which claim Jesus resurrected. Claims aren’t evidence. If I stood in a court of law and claimed that 500 eyewitnesses saw me in a different town atthe time I was accused of committing a murder, would my case be dismissed on the grounds of this very strong eyewitness testimony, or would I need to provide evidence that these 500 eyewitnesses actually existed?
    I’m not saying this is the only reason Christianity is irrational, as there are lots of other reasons. Example: prayer not only doesn’t work (as numerous studies have demonstrated) but couldn’t work (as most answered prayers would require free will to be violated).

  13. Tom Gilson says:

    A “1 in 100 billion event” has nothing to do with it, Foom. Dead people don’t rise again. Dead organisms don’t rise again, either, so your numbers are off by several orders of magnitude. I’m sure the odds on that basis are much less than 1 in a billion billion. Especially since we’re not talking mere resuscitation, but a return to life in glory.

    So don’t undersell your point: The odds are far, far worse than what you stated. What that means is that if it happened, it’s a miracle. It also means that if miracles can’t happen, then it didn’t happen. It also means (in a related though not identical point), if we live in a closed naturalistic universe, it didn’t happen.

    Now, if your claim therefore is that it’s too unlikely to be real, then you’re throwing in question-begging assumptions. The odds for it happening in a closed naturalistic universe are exactly zero, whereas the odds for it happening in a God-created, God-ordained universe where God wanted it to happen are exactly 100%.

    The odds against its happening only matter if miracles are probability-dependent events, but nobody thinks they are. A probability-dependent event is by definition not a miracle. I want to make sure both of us are clear on that. I don’t think that should be the least bit controversial, as it’s in the very definition of a miracle.

    But I don’t think that’s actually your claim. If I read you right, your claim is more like the Humean one, which isn’t, probabilities tell us miracles can’t happen, but more like, Miracle claims point to something so far out of the realm of common human experience, the odds tell us we’re far wiser to treat them as false than as true.

    Am I correct in believing that’s your claim? If so, please let me know, and I’ll be glad to move forward in discussing this and other claims you’ve made here (such as, “Miracle claims are by definition irrational…”). If I’ve understood you wrongly on that, please tell me again what you’re really trying to say.

    As you see, I am going to take this a step at a time, because that’s the only way to have a rational conversation. I see interesting points (and interesting problems_ in what you wrote. I could answer all of them at once, but that would almost certainly involve me answering something I thought you said, when you actually said (or intended to say) something different from that. That’s one of the ways these online discussions seem so often to fall apart. I’d rather do it in a way that has at least a chance of holding together.

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